Two of the three leading GOP candidates for president increasingly appear to be unable to discern fact from fiction. Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry spent the last 24 hours locked in battle over Perry's 2007 executive order requiring 6th grade girls to receive a vaccine against human papillomavirus, a leading cause of cervical cancer.
Bachmann appeared to have scored points at the Tampa, FL Tea Party debate by attacking the order, calling it "flat-out wrong" to force girls to get a "government injection." The order, which was supported by medical experts, had an opt-out clause. Bachmann charged it was motivated by campaign contributions from Merck, the drug's manufacturer. But then she told the Today Show "I had a mother last night come up to me here in Tampa Florida after the debate. She told me that her little daughter took that vaccine, that injection, and she suffered from mental retardation thereafter."
The American Academy of Pediatrics issued a statement saying the comment had no basis in fact. Bioethicists Steve Miles of the University of Minnesota and Art Caplan of the University of Pennsylvania offered financial rewards of up to $10,000 for verifiable medical evidence that the vaccine caused the child's mental retardation. "Michele Bachmann has decided to create a public health panic by bypassing the literature to advance her own career," Miles told me.
The HPV flap is just the latest in a GOP flight into unreason. Bachmann and Perry frequently take policy positions that fly in the face of science.
Abstinence Only Sex Education
Texas Tribune reporter Evan Smith asked Perry about why Texas's teen birth rate is 50 percent higher than the national average and pointed out that the public school policy, which often involves biblical direction but offers no sex ed, "doesn't seem to be working." Perry's response was to reassert that "abstinence works."
The conservative U.S. National Academies says "Some scientific conclusions or theories have been so thoroughly examined and tested, and supported by so many independent observations and results, that their likelihood of subsequently being found to be wrong is vanishingly small. Such conclusions and theories are then regarded as settled facts. This is the case for the conclusions that the Earth system is warming and that much of this warming is very likely due to human activities." Yet at the Reagan Library GOP debate, Perry argued "the science is -- is not settled on this. The idea that we would put Americans' economy at -- at -- at jeopardy based on scientific theory that's not settled yet, to me, is just -- is nonsense. I mean, it -- I mean -- and I tell somebody, I said, just because you have a group of scientists that have stood up and said here is the fact, Galileo got outvoted for a spell."
Bachmann says that "the big thing we are working on now is the global warming hoax. It's all voodoo, nonsense, hokum, a hoax."
This antiscience view has similarly expensive consequences for the public wellbeing. Consider U.S. insurance losses. Losses from catastrophic events related to the climate -- storms, floods, droughts, and wildfires -- have more than quadrupled since 1980, but remain unchanged in other categories of loss according to the 2010 Natural Catastrophe Review (pdf) published by Munich Re, a major reinsurer of U.S. property insurance companies.
Both Bachmann and Perry believe that the theory of evolution, which underlies all of modern biological science and medicine, is wrong. In August, Perry responded to a question from a boy in New Hampshire, who was prompted by his mother to ask about the age of the Earth and evolution. "I hear your mom was asking about evolution," Perry said. "That's a theory that is out there -- and it's got some gaps in it," Perry said. "In Texas, we teach both creationism and evolution. I figure you're smart enough to figure out which one is right."
Bachmann's ideas are even woolier: "natural selection is not the same thing as evolution. No one that I know disagrees with natural selection, that you can take various breeds of dogs... breed them, you get different kinds of dogs... It's just a fact of life... Where there's controversy is, Where do we say that a cell became a blade of grass, which became a starfish, which became a cat, which became a donkey, which became a human being? There's a real lack of evidence from change from actual species to a different type of species. That's where it's difficult to prove."
The Death Penalty
Antiscience thinking can have lethal consequences. Cameron Todd Willingham barely escaped a 1991 fire that killed his three daughters. State fire investigators testified that burn patterns were evidence of arson, and Willingham was convicted and sentenced to death. Dr. Gerald Hurst, a chemist and fire science expert, showed in early 2004 that the state investigators disregarded National Fire Prevention Association standard 921, Fire and Explosion Investigations. Hurst called their testimony "junk science" based on old wives' tales, and showed the fire was caused by a well-known phenomenon that scientists call flashover. Perry refused to grant a 30-day stay to allow time for the court to consider this new scientific evidence, reaffirming his position that Willingham was a "monster." Willingham was executed by lethal injection on February 17, 2004.
The Republican Party used to be the party of science. They stood against the antiscience rantings of ideologues like three-time Democratic presidential candidate and anti-evolution activist William Jennings Bryan. It is time for Republicans to question the processes that are allowing the party to slip into a race to unreason among its leading candidates today. The consequences of this type of antiscience, ideological thinking at the helm of the world's most powerful nation in one of its most desperate hours could be devastating.
Pre-order Shawn Lawrence Otto's important new book: Fool Me Twice: Fighting the Assault on Science in America, "a gripping analysis of America's anti-science crisis." -- Starred Kirkus Review. Like him on Facebook.